Love for God

“Do not let the old get in the way of the new, but reveal what the old was saying all along”

Richard Rohr

Mocking and ridiculing the old, holding it in contempt, misunderstanding and misinterpreting its original meaning and value, is something of a modern past-time. Nefarious actors have been adopting and desecrating sacred teachings, practices, and philosophies forever. And our present era is no exception. It’s really easy these days to bash the hypocrits, advocate for the dismissal of faith entirely, and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In spiritual circles, this often takes the form of bashing religion and shaming the entire arena of faith. And yet, in the sphere of mysticism, and for those who wander courageously into the wilderness of consciousness, it’s much more worthwhile to suspend the self-righteous bashing, and humbly explore what the old could have meant, and what secrets it might reveal for us today.

There is an unalterable truth in the old. Perhaps it’s misunderstood and misapplied, perhaps mistranslated or misrecorded, worse yet, perhaps used fraudulently and hypocritically for egotistical gains. But I’ve found that there is always a sacred value in it, to be honored and discovered rather than arrogantly discarded.

We are typically not any better than the people who came before us. And if we can set aside our various ideological filters and political agendas, we might be able to learn something of value.

This has been especially pertinent for me lately as I am moved into exploring the territory of love for God.

Many of us on the mystical path have experienced the big overwhelming love for everyone and everything. We tend to understand this as divine, cosmic, or universal love, which comes with a radical shift in consciousness. It feels like a condition that comes to us, overtaking us for some time, and then fading away, returning us to normal consciousness, leaving us grasping and longing for it to return. Some of us have also experienced God (or however you conceptualize God), and felt divine love coming to us from an external source.

These are of course rare mystical states, and they involve great, albeit temporary, shifts in consciousness. They are experiences of altered states, not the normal state of being. And we understand enlightenment often to mean a constant state of divine love, a permanent union with this love, both within and without.

The mystical writings however, all describe another aspect of this. They speak of loving God, not as something that overtakes us from outside, not as a mystical event, but as a practical doing – as something we must do. 

This has always felt weird to me. I can’t force myself to love anything, even God. How are you meant to practice a proactive loving?

So I’ve written a bit about my experiences of God before. At times, I have felt immense love; love that was coming from me for God, as part of the awe, reverence, and service feelings, part of the sense of total worship and allegiance. But those involve involuntary shifts in consciousness outside my control. They are not an active doing, and when they happen I am unable to feel any other way.

Those feelings can’t be recreated in normal states. It’s is not a feeling that is available to me on any regular basis. I can’t access it in any way. And even when prayer and divine connection was available to me regularly, that didn’t exactly bring love for God as a feeling.

So it didn’t make any sense to me to talk about the practice of loving God in any sincere way. I didn’t understand what the mystical instructions meant, and my mind wanted to dismiss it as “old;” as a relic of some kind of religious fervor, appropriate to the past but not relevant to me today. 

There are different levels of mystical maturity, and mystical writings are full of immature misdirections that are not always applicable. With discernment, it’s really easy to immediately gauge and dismiss misguided, misinterpreted, or mistranslated teachings, and that was my initial inclination here. But something about this instruction kept haunting me, and so I decided to delve deeper with it.

First I have to take you on a small tangent (but it’s relevant to this subject, I promise). 🙂

One of the big areas I’ve been working through for a few years now has to do with trust and betrayal. I’ve written a little bit about how trust wounds block faith in another post. But faith is a different feeling than love, right? In altered states, they come together at times, but faith, striclty speaking, isn’t love. It feels different.

So initially, my betrayal work centered on people – lovers, family, friends, all sorts of past life relationships with other people, where experiences of betrayal left wounds in my soul. I have been taken through an incredible array of human suffering, and betrayals are often part of those stories. I’ve been betrayed in every which way the human mind can imagine. So I had to relive each one of those stories, re-experience the emotional pain and trauma, and give it all a chance to come up and out so that it can heal. I cried, and cried, and cried, seemingly without end, healing and digesting all of those wounds. 

Then, when I had finished with human betrayals, I started to experience layers of betrayal by spirit. The experiences took a different turn, involving lies, false promises, false instructions and misdirections, by many different manifestations of spirit. This showed up in too many ways to describe, but generally involved investing my faith in spirit, following revelation or mystical manifestations, only to end up in worse suffering, realizing I had been duped. (This later turned out to be a normal, almost archetypal part of the purification work, but it still hurt a lot.).  

Betrayals by spirit, learning that spirit lies and tempts and misleads on purpose, really shake the mystical ground pretty hard. They create the sense that all of existence is untrustworthy, that life is fundamentally dangerous, that nothing and no one is safe, and they call the entire mystical process into deep question. All of that turns into a terrible ungrounded discomfort and existential crisis, which takes lots and lots of time and patience to digest all the way through back to solid ground. 

So then, past human betrayals, past betrayals by spirit, when those layers were reasonably clear of pain, and I was just starting to feel solid again, I hit something huge…

I hit betrayal by God. Specifically, being forsaken by God.

(Those are big big words I never imagined I’d be writing about, much less experiencing, but that’s exactly what I encountered.)

Feeling betrayed by God is the weirdest most complicated set of feelings yet. It’s kind of like I trusted God, I put my complete faith in him, I surrendered myself to him entirely, I invested everything in him, I gave up everything for him, and he betrayed me. He abandoned me, but this is far deeper than abandonment…

(In this particular experience God showed up internally as a “him.” I relay it that way here for the sake of integrity. In other experiences of God, there was no discernable gender, and some experiences of divinity with a distinctly female gender. The truth of this journey is all over the place, so please don’t assign any categorical meaning to that expression. Also, important to note here, I have cleared endless layers of projection onto God as well as pain stemming from those projections. This is a different experience entirely. Bringing understanding and tools for dealing with projections to bear here did not resolve the matter; meaning, this wasn’t a projection onto God, but an actual experience inside of which God was male.).

This wound, this being forsaken thing, was enormous. Enormous! And ancient; it echoed over and over, seemingly throughout time. It informed and colored every aspect of my mental landscape. I could now see and recognize its tentacles everywhere, penetrating every corner of my consciousness. It pushed up skepticism in almost every circumstance. It stood stubbornly in the way of any kind of solid faith. And as a result, the pain and defensive mechanisms left me feeling like a powerless mouse, pressed up against a corner of her cage, unable to trust anyone or anything again. There’s was lot of anger and fear and powerless rage inside that mess. 

And because I exist in God’s world, there’s nothing I can do about it. You cannot break up with nor walk away from God. Believe me, I tried. My rage, and anguish, and tears did nothing.

There is also another more complicated philosophical aspect to this wound, which has to do with trusting something that causes you harm (or allows serious unspeakable sort of destructions to happen to you). That is a different existential struggle and a different area of work. This particular area I’ve been describing is a separate and distinct experience.

So, here I was with this huge horrific wound. And I knew that if I intended to move forward it would have to be fully confronted and resolved. (The coercive pain and force holding my feet to the fire on this, literally, was of the same mindset…). There was no getting around it, and I got to work on this thing tirelessly, night and day, for weeks. I took it apart pieces by piece, digesting all the pain through fully, clearing all the layers of wounds. When I started to approach forgiveness and reconciliation, something amazing came into view, a new sliver of light. All of my pain subsided, revealing something I never imagined possible. This wasn’t a shift in consciousness, but a totally sober condition, which brought a feeling of conscious choice. I found a tiny tiny spark of the possibility of loving and trusting God again!! 

The choice was clear – if I opened my heart again, if I took a risk and trusted God again, if I let myself really really love God (as the mystics have instructed!!!), that love would absolutely overwhelm me. It would sweep me off my feet, like an all-encompassing infinite tidal wave. This love for God feels massive inside, and so naturally, very scary. It feels risky and terrifying. There’s lots of resistance, and wanting to hold on to an illusion of safety in the current darkness. There is a fear of that love, and a fear of annihilation by it, and of course, that familiar jumping-into-an-abyss feeling comes up. I’ve begun slowly unlocking that door. I’m not 100% ready to open it yet, but I’m getting there.

But most importantly, “love for God,” I get it now; I get the instruction about loving God, as a proactive doing. Like much of spiritual wisdom, it turns out that this is also a destination of healing.

It’s a thing we are meant to aim for, to hold as an ideal, and being unable to merely do it on the surface, it’s suppose to push us deeper and deeper into ourselves, to find all the blocks that stand in the way. And then, when those blocks are cleared, we are to courageously choose it, when it becomes an available choice. I get it now. I’m not totally there yet internally, but I get how it works and why it’s important. 

Many of the religious teachings that seem oh-so-silly at first are deeply deeply meaningful in exactly this way. They are misapplied, and dogmatically misunderstood by people who remain at the surface, and therefore can’t grasp the real meaning, but the essence of the teachings are right. I always feel really stupid when I arrive at the depth of meaning, and realize I’ve been arrogantly dismissing them when I should have been learning from them. (More lessons in humility for me.). 

So now, “love God with all your heart” has become a spiritual instruction for me, and a very complicated and painful journey of its own.

Experiences of the Divine

A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.

Sir Francis Bacon

I’ve been thinking back a lot on my formative years, working through a strange tangle of feelings and beliefs on the subject of God. Growing up, I had what could only be called a pseudo-religious mish-mash of an upbringing.

Hailing from the atheistic former Soviet Union, where religion was prohibited and Jews persecuted, my family members seemed deeply conflicted about their relationship with God, and what it meant to be Jewish. In my home environment, Judaism and Jewish tradition appeared to be much more their sense of identity, than anything resembling religion. At best, you could say that collectively my family saw Judaism as only a cultural, or ancestral mandate. They held on to a few very sporadic rituals, in a strange, arbitrary, sometimes dogmatic way, professing their undying pride about their Jewishness. But then, at the same time, they seemed to take pleasure in ridiculing Jewish doctrines, customs, and beliefs in the foundational concepts that make up the mystical heart of the religion. I can’t recall anyone talking about God in any serious way, ever. But then going to the synagogue on Yom Kippur was an absolute must. I’m not sure how to work those things out or understand them. I don’t have the sense that they ever gave it much conscious thought. Maybe this is just what happens historically when religion is disallowed and ethnic/religious identity persecuted – it results in a fragmented sort of clinging to whatever bits of ritual can be salvaged, but also manifests an internalized sense of shame? I don’t know and don’t want analyze it externally. It was a confusing dynamic to me, and asking questions about it lead nowhere.

As if that wasn’t enough, my family also believed and strictly enforced insane superstitions, purchased and wore amulets to ward off the evil-eye of course, and occasionally visited psychics and sorceresses, bringing home all kinds of protective paraphernalia to keep everyone safe. (From what, I also don’t know.).

Basically, we were your average normal Russian immigrant family. Preferring to remain within a closely knit immigrant community, my family didn’t assimilate much into mainstream American life. So home life was spent with other immigrant families, all just like mine.

On the other hand, everyday, I was sent to school at a fairly conservative yeshiva. Things there were markedly different than at home. The school day was split in half. The first half was dedicated to intense religious studies, conducted primarily in Hebrew. We had mandatory prayer, Torah study (in the original Aramaic), study of secondary ancient texts like the Talmud, and extensive review of various rabbinical commentaries… you get the idea. The second half of the school day was dedicated to the less-important subjects, things like math, english, history, science, etc. Non-essential subjects and critical thinking were pretty much off-limits. Contrary to other yeshivas, where intellectual debate and curiosity were encouraged and engaged properly, here the focus was primarily on rote memorization. All. The. Time. Frankly, I was so bored and disengaged most of my years there, that I remember almost nothing. (That’s not entirely true. I remember quite a lot emotionally. What I don’t seem to recall is the religious content they tried so hard to make us remember. I have a lot of repressed memories. If they ever surface, they might now come in handy, but that’s an irony I don’t wish to explore yet.)

As far as I can tell, in retrospect, the school community was bizarrely exclusionary. Their approach to education was to keep the “chosen” children completely sheltered from this big, bad, scary world of anti-semitic gentiles, lurking behind every corner, naturally. The constant theme of every school year was about historical persecution, slavery, oppression, and disenfranchisement, basically since the dawn of time – a rather difficult thing to handle for young children.

Thinking about it from here, their approach had to be informed by some kind of post-traumatic Holocaust-survivor response to the world. Which is understandable, I guess. But in their eyes, worse than the gentiles though, were Jews like me and my family, who weren’t observant enough, or conservative enough, or “something” enough to meet their rigorous inexplicable standards.

So, while I was allowed to go to the school, because someone knew someone who did someone a favor and got me in, I wasn’t allowed to actually belong. The unsupervised bullying and general disdain were a fairly constant thing. A fun-filled combination.

The idea of “fitting in” was a challenge for me pretty much everywhere. But the messages about God, or about religion generally, could not have been more conflicting.

When high school approached, I broke free of all of it, and joined the rest of secular society. The transition wasn’t easy, but I was thrilled to be unburdened and released into the real world. High school brought its own set of challenges, as it always does, but fitting into a very diverse community was a lot easier for me. The one thing that stayed with me for years afterwards, was that I wanted nothing to do with religion ever again. I didn’t pray. I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays (much to my family’s dismay). And I haven’t visited a synagogue in probably twenty five years. If I had to label me back then, I’d call me an agnostic, I suppose. I vaguely believed in some metaphysical things, but rejected everything to do with religion, viscerally so with Judaism, I’m sure you understand why.

In his treatise Atheism, Sir Francis Bacon writes “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” I just found this quote a few weeks ago. It was wonderfully exciting for me, because that’s precisely what happened next…

The majority of my work over the last few years has had very little to do with the metaphysical or esoteric. You can call most of it entirely secular self-awareness training. In the very beginning, and for the first few months of it, I was practically clueless about the true nature of what I was working on. I felt deeply called to it, compelled to do it, but I didn’t know why. I had no idea that my inner quest for self-discovery, awareness, and truth was even called “spirituality.” There was nothing in the content of my initial awakening that even registered as connected with religion. I thought I had merely found happiness, real joy, for the very first time.

And so for the next several years, living as something of an introverted hermit, I spent my time in deep personal contemplation and inquiry, without any sense of religion or God. As I worked with my teacher, listened to other teachers, and read an entire library of books, I would occasionally come across the mention of God. But the writings weren’t religious or connected with faith, and so I didn’t pay much attention to it.

I explored, tested, and implemented only the practical mechanisms that allowed me to go deeper and deeper, excavating whatever areas needed to be brought to awareness and cleared – it was all various forms of inquiry, essentially. I didn’t touch cosmology or the esoteric teachings. I didn’t care about spirituality or enlightenment. I wasn’t specifically interested in the biographies, myths, or anything theological. I wasn’t even on any kind of path or quest, to speak of. I was only interesting in the technical, grounded, practical tools for transformation, whatever source they happen to come from. I got a good internal sense of the process, how stuff feels and what to look for, and so my search lead me all around, looking for the practices that would help me go further. All I really wanted was just to be happy. I wanted to heal, and be free of the emotional suffering I had endured for so many years. And the tools and practices I was learning about and discovering were helping me do just that, very effectively. And so I just kept going without giving it much larger thought. 

After a while, I started to notice that at every real mention of God, or Lord, or Creator, or anything like that, internally, I would kind of cringe a little. Ugh. No. Not God. Please no. I know all about God. I’ve had enough of God through many torturous childhood years; enough indoctrination to last me a lifetime… The last thing I wanted was to go back to that mess of rules, and dogma, and judgment, and us versus them. The God I knew was the God of the Old Testament, as taught to me by some very troubled people. I wanted no part of that God ever again. So I kept my agnostic skeptical hat firmly in place, as I dove deeper and deeper into myself.

That’s when things started to get really weird. I began having experiences, some physical, some energetic, that I could not explain nor contextualize in any rational way. I’ve written about some of the stronger more intense experiences here, but they actually started slowly, subtly long before the full awakening began. They are almost impossible to reduce coherently or meaningfully into words.

I began having psychic visions, intuitive downloads of wisdom and insight, brilliant moments of clarity and connectedness, experiences of pure bliss and love and humility and service, incredible synchronicities (sometimes many of them a day), physical sensations inside and outside (!) the confines of my body… I could write several books on all of what I’ve experienced in the last few years.

Then, one day I was standing by the window in my apartment just watching the clouds. A fierce powerful wind was coming in, and I could feel a kind of electrical charge coming from it. Like it was alive and interacting with me somehow. Something strange, and ominous, and powerful was happening, but I didn’t know what.

As I began backing away from the window, God appeared to me. With my mind’s eye, I suddenly saw a vast dark smokey shadow before me, seemingly all over my living room. I didn’t see anything with my physical eyes. It was appearing to me some other way, and the substance of it was alive, it was charged with something, almost like it was smoldering. I don’t know how I knew that it was God, I just knew. It took me over, and shifted my consciousness to another state, where it was letting me know of itself. I felt instantly dwarfed, like I was absolutely tiny, ant-size, in relation to it. It was so immense and powerful, that the only thing I could do was fall to my knees in reverence and cry. I felt an immense love and devotion to it, but couldn’t say anything. I didn’t need to say anything. I had almost no thoughts about it, and I just remained sobbing on the floor for a long time.

This force is infinite beyond words. An intelligence greater than anything our human minds can understand. My mind kept trying to grasp its magnitude, to find its edges, but I couldn’t. There were no edges to it. There were no forms or shapes. This shadow stayed for a short time, and then disappeared. It didn’t say anything to me, but the message was clear – God is everything and everywhere, have no doubt.

After a short time my consciousness returned to a normal grounded place, but that day changed the course of everything. Needless to say, it took a long long time to process what had happened. Given my background, my childhood experiences, my feelings about God, I didn’t even quite know where to begin to untangle the mess of feelings within me.  

Now, I know how all of this sounds. I know exactly how it sounds. I see the looks on people’s faces when I tell them this story. It’s so outlandish, so outside the realm of possibility, that they scrunch up their faces, and shrug their shoulders not knowing what to make of any of it. Am I crazy? Do I need psychiatric treatment? Did I hallucinate this? No one can begin to fathom the possibility that what’s happened to me is real. (Side note: I’ve experienced hallucinations before, they happen with the physical eyes. Something appears to be there, seen with the eyes, which isn’t actually there. This was different. Hallucinations don’t shift your consciousness at all. While they can cause emotional reactions of course, they don’t transport you to another place like this experience did to me.)

But truth be told, I barely believed it all myself for a long long time too. Doubt, I did. A lot. And not just my own sanity, of course. Wrestling with the mental illness perspective took a couple of years. Diagnoses, and labels, and medications are fine, but they are a dead end. They are as far as Western science can go here. The medications can sometimes, not always but sometimes, dam up a mystical process for some period of time. But that’s all they do; they barricade it. They don’t heal, they don’t bring about resolution, and they certainly silence the call of the soul. Once a person comes off the medication, the process begins again, and all the saved up unprocessed emotional material comes flooding out with it. (This accounts for the withdrawal problems). Calling all of this merely mental illness, and trying to establish sanity is child’s play. (I’ll save that conversation for another time.). The greater and more profound problem of doubt is not a question of sanity. It has to do with healing all the trust wounds, and returning to faith in God, authentically, from the heart. That’s the real gargantuan problem to deal with. And that problem manifests as doubt, skepticism, and inability to believe. (There are further complexities here, which create fundamental doubt, but I will save them also for a future post.).

What’s interesting is that no one asks the seemingly obvious follow up questions: “What was it like? How did it feel? Has it happened since? What does it mean?” Not one single person asks me this. They all find polite ways to steer the conversation to something else. It is as if I told them that I went to Paris for a vacation, and instead of asking me “How was it?” they say something like “Well, if you believe you went to Paris… I suppose I’m happy for you.” Patronizing invalidation, at it’s finest.

It’s okay. I don’t blame them, nor do I look to them for validation. I understand why they respond to me that way. I wouldn’t believe me either, if I was in their shoes. I too would probably jump to the simplest skeptical reduction: she’s having a psychiatric episode. It’s completely understandable. It is the simplest way to avoid dealing with the bigger questions that arise. Nevertheless, it’s what actually happened to me. (And it’s happened again since that time).

But I’m not alone or unique in these experiences. Forget all the historical mystics and biblical figures. I know other people, living, psychologically stable humans, going through a similar spiritual development, who also have experiences of God. They aren’t prophets, and they aren’t schizophrenics. They aren’t religious people, and they didn’t come to these experiences through faith or devotion or religious ecstatic rituals.

The more accurate explanation is closer to what Sir Bacon wrote – it has to do with a depth in philosophy. Few people really understand this, but the quest for truth, the seeking of wisdom, the living of life in a heart-centered way, is what all the ancient schools of philosophy were actually about. The famous philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome (too numerous to list here) were not conveying abstract academic concepts, or meaningless rhetorical debate for the intellectual elite. They were conveying a system of practical application for living in the world from within. A way of being. A way of understanding and navigating life, people, relationships, work, art, purpose, and most importantly, love – all through the internal alchemical work of self-discovery. Naturally, the more you apply the philosophical tools, the deeper you go inward, the closer you get to the mystical; a connection and tradition we are all sorely sorely missing in our lives today.

With the right tools and the right contemplative practices, the deeper you go inward, the deeper levels of self-awareness you attain, the closer you get to the mystical, divine, essential truths and experiences. It doesn’t matter if you call it God, or cosmic consciousness, or Shiva, or any other name you wish. You are free to make up your own name for it. But there is no doubt something Divine, something vastly, unimaginably, unfathomably greater than our human existence.

Ironically, it doesn’t require faith as a pre-requisite. It doesn’t require adherence to anything in a religious sense. It is quite the opposite – it is about liberation. True liberation of the soul – releasing the authentic self from the confines of the ego. It’s an undoing. An unlearning. A de-conditioning of the mind. That’s what spirituality is really all about. It turns out that that is precisely what monasticism is all about too. I didn’t get that or understand it until I arrived there organically on my own. (I like to do things the hard way…).  

These direct experiences of divinity, of love and of spiritual bliss, are available to any serious spiritual seeker, in a variety of traditions. I am not special; nor am I chosen; nor are any of the people who share my experiences. It is available within all of us. We all have this capacity. It is available to anyone committed to going inward and really seeking discovery of him/herself. (And sometimes these experiences can happen spontaneously to people with absolutely no spiritual education, interest, or background. A wake up call from the soul, in my view).

Take it from someone who had zero faith, and a vehement rejection of God and religion; the deeper you go within your own self, the closer you get to the Divine.